Literary Review

An insider’s view on urban policymaking

Governance of Megacities: Fractured Thinking, Fragmented Setup; K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, Oxford University Press, Rs.895.  

Few individuals have dominated an aspect of Indian urban policy making in the post-liberalisation era as K.C. Sivaramakrishnan. After piloting the 74 Amendment of the Constitution on decentralisation of urban decision making as Secretary of Urban Affairs in the Government of India, he continued to influence urban policy in the decades after he retired from Government service. He helped the conceptualisation and practice of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and in 2014 headed the committee to find a new capital for Andhra Pradesh.

Governance of Megacities: Fractured Thinking, Fragmented Setup, released just a few weeks before Sivaramakrishnan passed away in May this year, is all that you would expect from an authoritative voice on Indian urban policy. It brings a long-serving insider’s command over the process of policy-making to the challenge of metropolitan governance. The book showcases Sivaramakrishnan’s masterly grasp over the details of Indian urban policy making and his desire to bring global best practices to bear on the task of governing India’s megacities, even as he remains steadfastly loyal to the principle of policy making from above.

One of the reasons for Sivaramakrishnan’s longevity as an influence on Indian urban policy was his ability to look critically at policies he was involved in creating. This willingness to publicly introspect on policies that may have gone wrong gave him the vantage position of using an insider’s insights to effectively critique a policy. This is perhaps best seen in his evaluation of the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) which many believed was one of the core elements of the 74 Amendment. His prominent role in the making of that Constitutional amendment did not stop Sivaramakrishnan from believing that “it is fair to conclude that the MPC is a non-starter, and no purpose will be served by retaining it in the Constitution” (p 207).

Critical as he was of individual policy measures, this approach did not extend to his lifelong commitment to policy making from above. Implicit in Governance of Megacities is a belief that a degree of centralisation was needed for effective policy making. Decentralised institutions may have to be created but they would be more efficient if they followed centralised norms. Even as he made a case for a metropolitan council for each metropolitan region, he insisted that “Formal representation of the Government of India through an appropriate senior official or special representative is necessary” (p 241).

This instinctive unwillingness to provide a more prominent place in his analysis for the messiness of grassroots concerns sometimes prevented him from tracing potential explanations for some of the ironies he was quick to spot. In a typically concise presentation of the case of Chennai’s experiments with a directly elected mayor (pp 194-5), Sivaramakrishnan recounts how Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam patriarch M. Karunanidhi’s son M.K. Stalin was elected to that post and displaced by the next government headed by Jayalalitha. While that may have been predictable, what was less so was the fact that when the DMK returned to power Stalin chose to be the Urban Development Minister rather than returning to becoming a powerful mayor. Sivaramakrishnan saw this as no more than an indication of “the casual attitude of the state government irrespective of the party in power towards local bodies and the repetitive change of policies in quick succession” (p 195).

In his view from above there was little recognition of the political difficulties in creating all-powerful metropolitan institutions. Unlike cities in the developed world, the boundaries of India’s metropolitan urban centres are rapidly expanding. A boundary drawn around urbanised areas at one point of time soon becomes ineffective for urban policy as the city grows beyond it. The bureaucratic response of defining boundaries that the city is expected to grow into faces the opposite problem of an urban authority having to deal with rural areas.

The nature of migration complicates matters further. Migrants from rural areas not too far from the city may choose to retain a close link to their villages. And those from further away, more often than not, prefer to hold on to their original regional identities. Rather than becoming the melting pot leading to a common identity, the Indian metropolis is often a maze of distinct identities. In the administrative view from above, these differences are expected to disappear over time and all that is needed is to create clearly defined authorities.

Politicians, in contrast, can hardly afford to ignore these diversities. Their political survival depends on their ability to champion the cause of one identity group and then stitch alliances with those representing other identity groups. Such a system inevitably throws up powerful local political leaders who resist the emergence of an all powerful directly elected mayor. Thus Stalin who had once been directly elected Mayor by an electorate of 3.5 million voters in Chennai chose to return to a system where he could influence the politics of that city by electorally representing only a part of it.

Merging the uncertainties of decentralised, conflict-based, identity politics in our metropolises with the certainty urban policy makers would like is no easy task. Indeed, most writing on Indian cities tends to go with one or the other. On the one hand, there is a vast body of literature that deals with the fragmented messiness of Indian cities from where it is easier to critique policy than to create it. There is the policy maker’s demand for clarity even if that sometimes means paying less attention to the more difficult-to-predict details.

Sivaramakrishnan unabashedly belonged to the latter category. His keen mind for urban detail meant that the messiness of India’s cities did not escape him. He was also open minded enough to recognise that these uncertainties could call for a reconsideration of some of the policies he may have once advocated. But this did not in any way diminish his commitment to develop a consistent, clear and comprehensive national urban policy.

Governance of Megacities: Fractured Thinking, Fragmented Setup; K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, Oxford University Press, Rs.895.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 5:32:07 PM |

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